Junior journalist, censor yourself!
Never censor yourself, journalist and columnist Fidan Ekiz told her audience of young, aspiring journalists at the Journalism Festival in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Never censor yourself, for example because you are afraid you will be portrayed as a critic of Islam. The advice stuck in my head. Is that what junior journalists have to be on their guard about, self censorship? Is that what undermines journalism these days?
I never censor myself. Almost thirty years in journalism, but I have never not written something, not used a word or not done an interview because I was afraid of being portrayed as anything. And believe me, as a journalist in Turkey and Kurdistan I have had reason enough to. Before I was kicked out of Turkey in September 2015, it was raining signals that the Turkish state was losing its patience with me. For three subsequent years, my press card renewal was refused (after which people in my European network pulled some ties in Ankara and a press card was issued anyway), the anti-terrorism police barged into my house with six armed goons, I had to appear before a judge and was thrown into a police cell for a couple of nights.
Not for one second did I consider censoring myself, because I knew I was practicing my profession properly. After the court case, in which I was accused and acquitted of ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organisation’, somebody said to me: “I bet you will think twice now before you write anything!” No I won’t. I always think ten times before I write something and I didn’t see any reason to reduce that to two times.
Still, there are a lot of things I didn’t write. I have even considered starting a file of stories and columns that I didn’t write, or start a blog series about it. It would be an endless series because journalism is a battle field: ideas die, angles turn out to be unviable, sources turn out to be worthless, lines of reasoning end up in dead-end streets, facts become fiction after check and double check, and the truth you were going to unveil with a journalistic story turns out to be a lie.
That’s not a problem. Better still: that’s fantastic. Because while doing your work, you stumble on other stories and deeper truths, are presented with unexpected sources and more original lines of thought and more exciting angles. You discover, oh bliss, the truth. And along the way you learn that the truth is not somewhere in the middle, as the cliche goes. The truth can be hard to find and complicated, but is not in the middle.
Look at the mother of all journalistic stories, the Watergate affair. How often were Woodward and Bernstein (header image) told by their editor-in-chief that the story wasn’t publishable yet? That it wasn’t solid enough? That it wasn’t water-tight yet and the hole needed to be closed? That wasn’t censorship or self-censorship, that was journalism. When the story was rock-hard, the paper went full force. With the truth.
So if I had to advise junior journalists, I would say: start with doing the journalistic slog for a couple of years, let’s say ten at least. Don’t think you have to speak out about all sorts of issues and don’t think you have to be on your guard about self-censorship. Open your visor as wide as possible. Or, let me put it this way: please be afraid to be called Islamophobe/ critic of Islam, propagandist, racist, politically correct and whatever else. Don’t try to be courageous because you so much want to make yourself heard. Journalism isn’t about you but about the story. Censor yourself! It will make you search further, dig deeper, ask more questions. Indulge yourself in doing interviews, stand with your feet in the mud endlessly, observe, unravel files and reports. Interview diamond anniverary couples, figure out why at that particular crossing so many bicycle users have accidents, visit the meetings of your city council, go to the local soccer match and write a proper report about it. Learn the profession.
Then you will also learn not to give a damn about what stamp people will put on you when eventually you have become so experienced and specialized that you can start broadening the journalistic genres you use and start voicing your opinions. You will be so fused with your métier that you won’t ever publish an article, column, reportage or essay again that is not worthy of your profession. In that situation, in the Netherlands and many other European countries self censorship cannot exist. Trust me, this terrorist whore knows.
Starting 1 October 2018, I started regularly contributing to the independent Dutch website Frontaal Naakt. For years now, Frontaal Naakt has taken a principled stance against racism, sexism, sloppy journalism and other evils of our times. I will translate the columns I publish there to English for this Byline page. You can support my work financially by clicking ‘Support this column’ on the right hand side of this page. In case you know Dutch, visit Frontaal Naakt here!